Avid fans of the horror genre, in all its complexities and subgenres, never have a dull moment. Well, I suppose that is not an entirely true statement, just thinking about how many terrible and dull horror movies are released each year. What I mean, rather, is that there is always another horror movie or filmmaker coming out, promising to be the next great Evil Dead or Ty West, respectively. How does a self-described horror fan, then, decide which movie is worthy of her time?
It is that very question that I both asked and have heard a lot regarding the upcoming The ABCs of Death, the American anthology horror film produced by Ant Timpson and Tim League. Clearly, given the nature of this piece, I decided that the anthology, split up into 26 specific sections, in which 26 different filmmakers created and directed a horror death scene inspired by one letter of the alphabet (A is for Apocalypse, B is for Bigfoot, etc.), was definitely something I needed to see. Giving 26 different horror film directors, both big and small, free rein to direct a five-minute death scene with the only stipulation of it having to relate to one letter of the English alphabet? It sounds pretty cool, huh? Or, at the very least, it seems like it would be semi entertaining, right?
Well, certainly some of the letters were entertaining. Q is for Quack and T is for Toilet ranked among my favorites. Q is for Quack, written and directed by duo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, was one of two shorts in the overall anthology that was truly meta in that the short was about having to create a death scene for this anthology after they were given the terrible letter of Q. The two filmmakers figure that filming a real death on screen is what they will need to set them apart, from the 25 other directors, deciding on a duck as the animal in question. They drive out to the desert, each with a gun in hand, prepared to shoot the caged bird. One of the guns jams, resulting in the accidental shooting of the first filmmaker who, in turn, accidentally shoots the second filmmaker. Both die and the duck is left quacking.
Coming shortly after Q is for Quack (which, hopefully you already knew, it IS the English alphabet, after all), T is for Toilet is a Lee Hardcastle Claymation short that centers on a young boy’s fear of being potty-trained and, more specifically, of the toilet. With his unsympathetic parents urging him on, the boy finally decides to use the toilet. Upon flushing, the toilet water overflows with bubbles exposing a monster that kills the boy’s parents. But, alas, the boy wakes up and realizes it was a dream. He then decides that he needs to use the toilet, so he makes his way to it. The father hears his son and goes to check on him. All is going smoothly until the boy slips and falls getting his head stuck in the toilet seat. The father laughs uncontrollably until the top of the toilet falls straight down, crushing the young boy’s head, killing him. You see, guys? T is for Toilet! Original, right?
Well, for every original letter, The ABCs of Death is plagued with twice the unoriginality. I am looking at you A is for Apocalypse and M is for Miscarriage. Both of these vignettes, exposing an overall flaw with the movie, were just too literal and unimaginative, which seems difficult given the anthology’s very clear lack of restraints. A is for Apocalypse, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, portrays a knife fight that occurs between a man who resembles a patient and a woman who presumably has taken care of this man for a long time. The fight leaves the man gorily wounded, with multiple injuries. Before he dies, he asks her why and she informs him that she has been listening to the news the whole morning and she ran out of time. Before the scene ends, the camera pans to the white curtains covering a window and as they turn red, the viewer hears noises outside their room of cars crashing. Not only is the decision to make A is for Apocalypse not original in that, yes, this is a form of death already, but also, if you decide to make a short about an apocalypse, you better show the actual apocalypse. Merely alluding to it made me feel cheated.
Similarly and this pains me to say, Ty West’s M is for Miscarriage seemed too simple and easy a short for a horror filmmaker of his caliber. The short is somehow even shorter than the other 25 and shows a woman on a toilet. After she has trouble flushing, she walks upstairs to find a plunger. When she returns, the camera reveals what is lurking inside of the toilet: a lot of blood and a form of some kind. Oh, right, M is for Miscarriage, got it. Does this really showcase West’s skills and mastery over the genre?
The thing is, exemplified by A is for Apocalypse and M is for Miscarriage, if you decide to do a movie like this, then it pays to be original. Why The ABCs of Death was not filled completely with shorts like H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion or Y is for Youngbuck is beyond me. Perhaps, this is the point of the film: to reveal how many filmmakers buckle under the pressure of having no constraints in a film about constraint. Either way, A is for Apocalypse and M is for Miscarriage felt especially half-assed.
This brings me to another problem that dogs The ABCs of Death: it feels, by and large, like a film school project. Rather, the film’s constraining unrestraints feel like the type of rules a student is made to follow when gearing up toward his or her thesis film project. This does not mean that any anthology is doomed to fail, but I do think it should be noted that the other horror anthology, which garnered a lot of attention among horror fans and premiered at least year’s South by Southwest Festival is VHS, an anthology-short film claiming to be one of the scariest films of all times. VHS revealed itself to be: (1) not so scary; and (2) quite mysogynistic. Will S-VHS, its sequel, suffer from the same problems? Well, you will have to wait until it is released, having debuted this year at Sundance.
Furthermore, watching 26 horror shorts is a lot. Believe me. This is especially true when taking into consideration the fact that each of these shorts revolves around a death scene. I usually operate under the mantra of “The more death the better” (you know, when talking about horror films), but five minutes is just not enough time to care about the subject who will eventually (but not so eventually, we only have five minutes after all) die. Part of what makes a horror film great is the Instead. During most of the shorts, I did not care who was going to die. There was no emotional attachment; my lack of investment was palpable. Basically, I ended up counting down the alphabet.
While The ABCs of Death seems to be an interesting, novel, take on horror film anthologies, what the audience is left with is a movie that is not quite there. Is it worth your time to see the movie? Eh, I think you can find the few really good shorts on YouTube.